Associate Lateral Moves Increased By Nearly 149% In 2021

Fatima Fokina

Lawyers know that the lateral market was hot, hot, HOT in 2021. But how hot was it? Thanks to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), we finally know, and the numbers are simply mind-blowing.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in 2020, early hiring pauses led to a 30% decline in lateral movement but last year was absolutely on fire when it came to law firm hiring. According to NALP, lateral hiring was up by 111% in 2021, making it the largest year-over-year increase since the organization first started tracking this information more than two decades ago. In fact, associates saw an incredible boom in lateral hiring, with their moves increasing by almost 149% in 2021. Overall, about 7,700 lawyers made lateral moves last year.

James Leipold, executive director of NALP, had this to say about the wild lateral ride that attorneys experienced last year:

“The fact that the lateral hiring market was red hot in 2021 does not come as a surprise to anyone working in the industry, but even so it is startling to see these numbers, and it is good to be able to quantify the change in the market that firms have been grappling with this past year. I was surprised to see that the change in lateral associate hiring was so much greater than the change in lateral partner hiring, though both markets were more than brisk, as NALP members working in the trenches trying to fill vacancies know only too well.”

Here are some other key findings from NALP’s Survey on 2021 Lateral Hiring (emphasis added):

The average number of lateral associates hired per office/firm in 2021 was about 11 and the median was 4 compared to an average of approximately 2 and a median of 1 for lateral partner hires. Lateral associate hiring accounted for 69.2% of lateral hiring in 2021 and lateral partner hiring accounted for 14.7%. Other lateral hiring comprised 16.1% of lateral hiring.

While overall lateral hiring was up across the board, offices in firms of 251-500 lawyers experienced the largest increase in lateral hiring (137.9%), and offices in firms of 250 or fewer lawyers had the smallest increase (79.3%).

On a regional basis, the level of lateral hiring per office was highest in the Northeast, with a median of 10 and an average of 18 lateral hires in 2021. In terms of aggregate volume change, volume was also up the most in the Northeast region (177.5%).

So, how are things looking for laterals this year? “Lateral lawyer hiring at this level is likely unsustainable over time, and I expect the lateral market to cool a bit in 2022, or at least level off,” Leipold noted, “but for now it remains a volatile and fast-moving market. Coupled with rising associate salaries, it’s a bit of a battlefield out there for mid-level associate talent right now.”

If you’re still interested in making a move, the time is now. Best of luck!

2021’s Hot Lateral Hiring Market Notches Record Increase From 2020 [NALP]

Staci ZaretskyStaci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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